NEW YORK — Thirty years ago, American schoolchildren learned to tuck their heads to their knees and crouch beneath their desks, the better to ward off an atomic attack.
Now those children have children of their own. Hiding under a desk, these children and adults are all too aware, is scant deterrent against the horrors of nuclear war.
Rather, the issue is moving into the classroom, and with it, a controversy over the teaching of what is known variously as peace studies or Nuclear Age education.
"The issue," said Herbert A. (Tony) Wagner III, president of Educators for Social Responsibility, "is updating civics education. The issue is civics education for the '80s. And the issue is creating an intelligent, informed, active citizenship capable of thinking critically about alternative policy actions, and who are able to vote on their convictions.
'Survival of the Planet'
"What we are dealing with," Wagner contends, "is not what to think, but how to think about the crucial issues of our time."
As for the notion that Nuclear Age education is merely so much anti-defense propaganda, Wagner responds, "We think the issues that must be taught go well beyond the facts of the arms race. We are really concerned with questions relating to the survival of the planet."
Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative lobbying group, the Eagle Forum, rebuts: "We think these programs are designed to fill the children with fear and guilt and despair, and they are designed to promote the political organizations pushing this kind of thing, which are mainly the National Education Assn. and the Educators for Social Responsibility. Part of their purpose is to attack a strong national defense."
Nuclear Age education, Schlafly said in a telephone interview from her headquarters in Alton, Ill., "is just politics in the classroom."
As head of an organization that was launched Memorial Day weekend, 1982, when Wagner wrote the funding proposal for Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR) in his Cambridge, Mass., bedroom, the 39-year-old former teacher and school administrator is accustomed to such charges.
As he concedes, "There are many legitimate questions and concerns on the part of parents and educators about how one makes this subject educationally appropriate. The last thing anyone wants to do is instill fear where there is none."
But Wagner would challenge those who suggest children have no fears about their nuclear future. He cites a recent study by the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals that found that half of American high school students "are deeply concerned about the threat of nuclear war." In a similar study in 1974, Wagner said, only 7% of teen-age boys worried about nuclear war. A second study Wagner refers to, conducted at Harvard in 1980, concluded that 40% of grammar and high school students had contemplated nuclear war before the age of 12. Half said the specter of nuclear war affected their plans for marriage and careers.
Critics of Nuclear Age education, Wagner said, "insist it turns children into (nuclear) freeze advocates. They believe all the material in these programs is biased.
"They make it into an adversarial issue," he said. "Our responsibility is to make it into an open discussion."
It is ESR's position, Wagner said, that "we are not trying to mandate a curriculum to anybody. We are trying to encourage school boards to give resources over to teachers, but we do not have a curriculum that could be adopted tomorrow. We believe that local school systems must spend time and money to develop Nuclear Age education."
One school board that seems to be in accord with this position is Los Angeles. In February, the Los Angeles Board of Education passed a resolution to devise lesson plans involving nuclear war, but without advocating any political position. Contacted at his office in Los Angeles, secondary social science specialist Alan Scholl said he expected an "interdisciplinary" Nuclear Age curriculum to be implemented in Los Angeles at the kindergarten through 12th-grade levels sometime this spring.
'A Very Important Topic'
"It's certainly a very important topic today," Scholl said. "It's an important science topic and an important social science topic. It's something that does need to be addressed."
Scholl said the Los Angeles program would be "very broad, as it should be. We're treating the full range of nuclear issues, everything from nuclear arms to nuclear medicine."
The same month that Los Angeles initiated its Nuclear Age educational package, the San Francisco Unified School District also adopted a resolution instituting nuclear education. This action, the district explained, was taken pursuant to California Assembly Bill 3848, mandating that the State Department of Education conduct a survey of school districts to determine "the beliefs and needs" of California students in regard to Nuclear Age education.